Frank Keating was inspired by a gentle giant


Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s day tributes and accolades, as expected, flooded in from all walks of life. President Cyril Ramaphosa, for example, said in his eulogy at the funeral that Tutu was ‘our moral compass and national conscience’. Archbishop Tutu is reckoned to be one of only two Anglican Clerics who became renowned world figures – why are there not more one would ask, but that is for another discussion.

In this short piece I want to add to the many eloquent voices who paid tribute to the Archbishop. I have been privileged to have met him and recall two occasions that I vividly remember, one in Cape Town and another in London. I was a Lecturer in Social Work at the University of the Western Cape (a University established by the apartheid regime to provide Higher education for the ‘so-called’ Coloured group in South Africa). The Archbishop was appointed as our Chancellor in 1987 (a post he held for 25 years) and often spoke at the convocation ceremonies. It was at one such ceremony he addressed the graduands with this anecdote (he was a great story teller). He started by saying ‘never shout when you want to win an argument’ and when on to recount a conversation (read argument) with his father. He was trying to convince his father of a particular point, but his father was not budging and as the conversation ensued he started to speak louder, to the point where he said to his father ‘but I am shouting’ and his father’s gentle response was ‘that is why I cannot hear you’. I still use this anecdote to teach my students about resolving conflicts. 

Archbishop Tutu had a seminal influence on the University of the Western Cape during his tenure as Chancellor by raising the profile of the university and a tribute from the current Rector at the university captures this: ‘UWC today is one of the premier higher education institutions in Africa and famed worldwide for the quality of its education, its research, and the leaders it produces. And it is Tutu’s legacy that makes that possible’.

The second time I recall meeting the Archbishop was in London when I was a member of the PCC of St Mary’s Lewisham in South London. The Archbishop was in the area to open a new wing at Lewisham Hospital and the then Vicar, the late David Garlick, invited him to a reception in church after the opening. The church was packed and we were all eagerly awaiting his arrival and when word got out that ‘he is here’ everyone rose and put their hands together in gentle clapping (a shame no one was ululating!). The Archbishop entered to a rousing applause and when the noise abated his first words were ‘Did all these people come to see me’? He proceeded in his inimitable style to bounce down the centre aisle to shake everyone’s hand, to some he asked their name and to others he said ‘God Bless you’. As you might imagine after all that shaking of hands there was no time for a reception after that as he was whisked off to another engagement. We all left with a glow on our faces and a warmth in our hearts.

I salute Archbishop Tutu; he was deeply religious, a true leader and a hero. He stood for justice, peace, reconciliation and unity. If the Church can preach this message today, we might just become relevant again.


Frank Keating is Professor of Social Work at Royal Holloway, University of London, and grew up in South Africa.